Interview with Zach Sell

Winner of the Paul E. Lovejoy Prize

In: Journal of Global Slavery
Free access

Zach Sell, the winner of this year’s Lovejoy Prize with his book Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), is Assistant Professor in the History of Slavery at the University of Notre Dame. Specialized in the history of slavery in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world, Sell earned his PhD in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. The jury members of the Lovejoy Prize were keen to interview him about his work and future research plans.

How did you come to research this particular topic in the first place, and what were your intentions for doing so?

Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss my book. I’m very grateful for the award and recognition!

I first started researching this book as a dissertation focused on transnational connections between US slavery-based managerial practices and British imperial projects. I initially focused on the movements of slaveholders and overseers between the United States and British imperial world as part of a shared history of white supremacy, slavery, and colonialism in the mid-nineteenth century. Toward this end, I read agricultural and plantation management journals and followed their trans-imperial circulation. I soon realized though that these movements were only one aspect of a vaster history about US slavery’s location within a Britain-dominated global economy characterized by disruption and the frequent recalibration of racially-determined violence. The transformation of the project also corresponded with my interest in critical engagements within Marxism on questions related to slavery, anti-Blackness, and imperialism.

How does your study change the way scholars think about the intersection between slavery, emancipation, and empire in the 19th century? What do you hope that students of both American slavery and the British Empire will learn or take away from this book?

I hope the book encourages students of US slavery to consider nineteenth-century US slavery as itself an imperial project. Slavery was integral to the formation of the US as a settler empire and also deeply interconnected with and transformed by British imperialism. Similarly, I think for scholars of the British Empire, the book demonstrates that US slavery had a deep influence upon putatively post-slavery Britain, impacting not only metropolitan Britain but also Britain’s empire from Australia to Belize to India. This relationship, I believe, contributes also to a reconsideration of how so-called emancipatory projects against slavery often formed in relation to imperial projects beyond the Atlantic world directed toward the extension and transformation of colonial rule.

Your book highlights how US slavery-produced commodities (especially cotton) not only helped fuel British manufacturing but also imperial projects on a global scale, ultimately producing a system that was too powerful and profitable to end, even after emancipation. Could you explain to our readers how slavery’s influence “survived emancipation?”

Certainly, and for anyone interested in this question I would recommend Kris Manjapra’s important recent Black Ghost of Empire. My book concludes with consideration of a chart published in The Future Wealth of America (1852). The graph estimates that over 71,000,000 Black people would be enslaved in the United States in the year 2000. This is a terrible, white-supremacist vision that would be overthrown by the struggles of enslaved people themselves. At the same time, while such visions were punctured, this didn’t mean slavery’s legacies or afterlives disappeared. As W.E.B. Du Bois famously observed in Black Reconstruction, the end of slavery led to the emergence of a new imperialism and vaster slavery defined by the racially organized domination of labor that was conditioned by the betrayal of Black freedom.

Taking inspiration from Du Bois’s observations, through multi-sited archival research I show how the possibility and actuality of US slavery’s end produced a series of new colonial projects across the United States and British imperial world. US slavery emancipation resulted in the fastening of new obligations onto colonial India for export-oriented commodity production. When India did not meet these expectations, India’s weavers, merchants, and peasants were judged as failures to the empire who required further imperial intervention. In Queensland, Australia white settlers debated establishing either a white settler colony or a plantation-based colony through debate over the meaning of slavery in the United States. In Belize, colonial officials looked toward the possible relocation of formerly enslaved people from the United States and subsequently turned toward Chinese indentured labor which would be violently managed by former slaveholders from the United States. In the United States, as the Republican George W. Julian observed, the Civil War was both a slaveholder’s rebellion and a “landholder’s rebellion.” In winning this landholder’s rebellion, slaveholders foreclosed the redistribution of land to formerly enslaved people and created a pathway for future Black dispossession through the logic of real estate. Together, these are some aspects of slavery’s influence surviving emancipation and, of course, the afterlife of slavery extends far beyond what is documented in my book as well.

What might be the relevance of your research for contemporary society, especially as the US and Britain grapple with a public reckoning with the legacies of slavery and empire?

Present projects for extending capitalism’s lease on lives are not untethered from the nineteenth-century world. Capitalism since the global financial crisis has been defined by a decade of more austerity, more killer cops, relentless land grabs, and unrelenting projects of enclosure. This capitalism has also put forth new miseries: new forms of authoritarian populism and new racist regimes. In the present a new conjunctural crisis is defined by the pandemic, capitalist breakdown, police murders of Black people, unemployment, and mass displacement. The ongoing crisis (and it is ongoing) is also very much itself about the refashioning of capitalist domination. At the same time, the recent global uprisings against this horrible reality, from the global George Floyd Rebellion to the farmer’s protests in India reveal possibilities for another world.

For those that believe that the history of race, empire, and capitalism is important to understand because it is not yet over, my book provides reflection upon global uprisings toward emancipation that came in conflict with the violent reality of racially-determined, capitalism. This capitalism was not only breaking-down but also re-emerging in a new, ever violent form. The nineteenth century history of structural breakdown, white supremacist projects for building ethnic states, Black freedom dreams, and colonial disruptions at the heart of my book offers much for reflection upon the history of the present. In this regard, the book is not disinterested history and I’ve never accepted the premise that “good history” is written by disinterested spectators. Anti-imperial history and histories of slavery must necessarily be different.

One of the aspects of your book that the committee found especially rewarding is that you consulted source material from such a wide range of historical archives located all over the world, including the US, UK, India, Australia, and even Belize. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences conducting archival research in such diverse settings?

Intellectually, this was a very important, generative, and challenging experience as is the case for most who do multi-sited archival research, I believe. It was important to see the limits of thinking through the British colonial administrative state in papers available at the National Archives of India and the British Library, for example, while placing this in relation to research drawn from the archives of slaveholders and slave traders in the United States. Following connections and correspondences between seemingly disparate archives also provided unique insight into the different nature of archival sources. An aspect of research and writing that I found particularly significant was reading and thinking with scholars who have grappled with archival questions across seemingly disparate research fields. Reading scholarship on South Asian agrarian history raised new questions about how to write about the history of racial slavery and similarly the methodological questions raised by historians of Atlantic slavery informed the way that I thought about reading archives of colonial occupation beyond the Atlantic world. Together this scholarship provided robust ways for considering how the archives of colonialism, slavery, and capitalism so often muzzle rather than reveal the past.

Socially, it was, of course, truly wonderful to meet and engage with archivists and researchers and that is a joy that I share with many who are lucky enough to work as historians. I would like to acknowledge just how wonderful the support from all archivists was especially at the National Archives of Belize and the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. In addition, support from the History and Philosophy Newspaper Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enabled the project to grow and develop as a dissertation. I value very much the friendships, support, and shared conversations over coffee, tea, lunch, and drinks.

How might your work relate to other studies of slavery and slaving across time and space, beyond the 19th-century world of American slavery and British Empire?

While my book focuses on the mid-nineteenth century, I think scholars of racial slavery in the Atlantic world focused on earlier eras and other regions might draw inspiration from how the book draws upon archives outside of the Atlantic world to better understand the history of hereditary racial slavery’s global reach. Further, there is much, much more to say about trans-imperial history in earlier eras, especially in the genealogies of colonialism and slavery formed between South Asia and North America. From the movement of colonial personnel to the articulation of ideas about settler colonialism, race, and slavery in relation to so-called franchise colonialism, the pre-nineteenth century world has many shared historical and conceptual concerns with those that are at the heart of Trouble of the World. This is something that I am interested in continuing to work on and also look forward to seeing even more inspiring new scholarship on as well.

What advice might you have for upcoming scholars interested in approaching slavery from a global perspective?

Don’t do it! I say this jokingly but want to clarify why that was my first thought when I read this question. I feel conflicted about offering advice based upon personal experience in working on the history of slavery from a global perspective, especially for upcoming scholars. On the one hand, I think that this work is essential, necessary, and important. There are so many terrific and inspiring examples of scholarship in this field that it is more dynamic than ever.

On the other hand, I feel like aspects of working on this are often extremely difficult for upcoming scholars. I worked on and finished the book during a series of one-year contracts in visiting and contingent faculty positions in and adjacent to higher education. I am extremely grateful for the support that I received both formally and informally during that period, but I also reflect on how small the spaces of formal support could sometimes seem. From that experience and from learning about experiences far beyond my own, I have observed that there is sometimes shockingly little space for upcoming scholars working on significant work in global histories of race, colonialism, and capitalism.

Now, that said, I also believe that it is is imperative to work on scholarship that you believe in and that reflects historical reality, to surround yourself with brilliant people who support you, to support them, and also to believe in yourself. That is the way that I personally survived.

What will be your next project?

I’m working on a few different projects including a second book tentatively titled Speculation against Insurgency: Racial Slavery in Revolution. I’m still in the early stages of researching the book but plan to examine the implications of early US Atlantic slave trade speculation as an extremely profitable form of capitalist speculation following the American Revolution. I intend to further consider how African diaspora insurgency set limits to profits from this speculation and put terror in the minds of US slaveholders on US plantations. These slaveholders feared the transatlantic slave trade would inspire a new anti-plantocracy revolution within the United States. Aboard slave ships, captain and crew organized against enslaved people’s uprisings while on plantations slaveowners prepared against revolts and in fear of revolutions. The history of insurgency and counterinsurgency produced new contradictions that would cast a long shadow beyond the US slave trade ban.

Journal of Global Slavery Editorial Team

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